Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
As more districts splinter along lines of race and income, judicial processes meant to protect the fair distribution of educational resources are failing, a new report finds.
Back in April, the white, middle-class Alabama city of Gardendale, a suburb of Birmingham, received preliminary approval to saw itself off from its poorer, largely black county school district. It was a move that, as my colleague Mimi Kirk reported, telegraphed clear messages of racial inadequacy that “assail the dignity of black schoolchildren,” according to Madeline Haikal, the district court judge who presided over Gardendale’s secession bid.
The judge found that the school districts would become deeply segregated if permitted to split apart—and further, that race was clearly motivating the bid to secede. But she supported it anyway, out of fear that those very children would suffer retaliation if she blocked it.
This is the sort of education “justice” questioned in a new report by EdBuild, a think tank focused on reforming public school funding. “Fractured: The Breakdown of America's School Districts” counts dozens of successful secessions since 2017, plus nine active efforts in Alabama, California, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
“Very few cases we identified did not seem to lead to unnecessary segregation,” says Rebecca Sibilia, the executive director of EdBuild.
Sometimes districts try to secede for valid reasons of geography or logistics. And in many cases, school district secessions are motivated, at least in writing, by concerns about “local control” over property tax dollars. But when economic gaps between neighborhoods in the same district are positively yawning, income is frequently inextricable from race.
Look, for example, at what happened when six white, wealthy Tennessee suburbs split from the impoverished Shelby County school district in 2014. These communities had fought for a decade to keep their tax dollars from going to students in the 93 percent nonwhite Memphis City schools. A series of boundary-shifts between city and county school districts paved the way for their secession.
The newly formed districts have an average student poverty rate of just 11 percent. By contrast, more than 30 percent of Shelby County district students lives below the poverty line. That’s a more extreme divide than between Beverly Hills and Compton in Los Angeles, according to the report.
The report offers other stunning examples. In East Baton Rouge Parish, three white, wealthy, newly incorporated communities recently managed to create districts separate from the existing, impoverished parish district. They cleared massive legal hurdles to do so, including amending the state constitution and getting a decades-long desegregation order waived.
The secessions have had a clear segregating effect, the report finds: As of 2015, student populations in the broken-off districts were 42 percent white on average, compared to 90 percent nonwhite in the shrunken parish district.
The effects of school segregation are well-documented. Heavily segregated schools in predominantly poor, nonwhite neighborhoods tend to be chronically under-resourced. Students suffer academically, which can kick off a lifetime of achievement gaps. By contrast, students of color tend to do better in integrated schools where resources are spread more evenly. White students benefit too—they think harder to solve problems, and build more empathy.
It’s understandable that parents want to provide for their children, says Sibilia. The problem is a failure of the school funding system, which is inextricably tied to local property taxes, and of judicial processes meant to keep the interests of all children in mind. Of the 30 states that statutorily allow for secession, only four require that seceding communities gain the support of the school district being left behind. Just six mandate that racial and socioeconomic effects are considered. It’s too easy for parents to act on their worst impulses, says Sibilia. In some places, they’re practically incentivized to.
“The ability to opt out of contributing to the common good is almost unique to education,” she says. “Could you imagine if people could decide to stop paying federal taxes because they don’t use that street or that library? Or because they don’t know anyone on Medicare?”
In truth, it’s becoming easier to imagine such a society every day. The story of public schools is a deeply worrying precedent.
How can states block communities from inequitable secessions? Some states, like Georgia and Florida, have disallowed secessions entirely. They can also raise the bar for new district creations, requiring communities to analyze the impacts on race and socioeconomics (as Wisconsin does) and to gain the approval of the left-behind district (like in Texas). Even fans of charter schools can get behind secession-tightening measures, Sibilia says: “You can get local control without abandoning the notion that tax dollars should provide for the public.”
Beyond any specific policy measures, “states must reimagine their education funding systems in a manner that gives all students a chance at success,” the report states. Imagine an education system where fair and equal opportunity was not just a catchphrase, but a measurable reality in dollars and resources. Segregating borders could be a thing of the past.